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Entomophagy has always been a traditional eating habit in Mexico: local people have been eating bugs for centuries. Until the Spanish conquered the territory, in 1519, Mexicans did not have a culture of breeding animals, what made bugs and insects like ants, grasshoppers, and worms one of the most significant sources of protein in the Mayan and Aztec diet.
Things have changed over the past five centuries, however, with the inclusion of other animals in the Mexican diet. But now a new generation of local chefs is trying to rescue this tradition by bringing these delicacies back to plates in updated dishes. Driven by a movement that took the gastronomic scene by storm, in which several institutions (such as FAO) argue that insects can be a sustainable alternative to meat, and trailblazer chefs (such as Alex Atala and René Redzepi) seem to embrace the culinary potential of them, these Mexican cooks are transforming the fine dining scene of their country. And they are relying on a small army for that.
Tartare of avocado, escamoles and chips of quelites
The consumption of insects in Mexico is not something that is associated with current trends, but something that has been in local culture since ancient times, according to chef Jorge Vallejo, from the awarded restaurant Quintonil (No. 9 in the Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants list). “In fact, you can find them in traditional markets or in typical restaurants since ever. But now, they have ceased to be a product that is associated only with Mexican folklore and restaurants started to use them in order to bring innovation also in terms of flavors. And their flavors are unique”, he says.
At Quintonil, one of the insect dishes he makes is a Chicatana chorizo (sausage) that he serves with a creamy rice with Ocosingo cheese and other homemade charcuterie. The chicatana flying ant is a popular ingredient and uses to prepare the famous mole de hormigas chicatanas, a rich Oaxacan sauce made with the toasted ants. Once a year, when the chicatanas fly away from their nests, people catch them with big nets and clean them one by one, so they are ready to be used as an ingredient.
Just like chicatanas, most edible insects in Mexico are collected in nature by local people in a very rudimental and artisanal way - which makes many of them cost more than 100 US dollars per kilo. “The consumption of these products invariably has a social gain, since the gatherers or producers are people working on the land, and by consuming them, we directly support the indigenous communities of our country, which I see as a double benefit”, he points out.
Vallejo thinks that beyond rescuing traditions, now the insects theme is also a way to revalue Mexican ingredients. “We must give them a space in restaurants that are considered fine dining so that people from abroad can have the opportunity to taste them at the same time we remind Mexican people they exist and that they are delicious and versatile”, he explains. “I think the possibilities are plenty and go beyond the classic taco”, he adds.
Sea urchin with chicatana ants dish
“I think that modern restaurants specialized in Mexican food have tried to rescue this kind of food culture because they say a lot about Mexico and its products”, says Lucho Martinez, chef of Emília, a fine dining Mexican restaurant with Japanese accent recently opened in Mexico City. He serves the famous chicatanas ants toasted over cream of sea urchin and chilhuacle (an aged black chili). For him, it is incoherent that many Mexicans reject the consumption of these ingredients or in some cases, they do not even know them.
Although Martínez seeks oriental influences in his authorial dishes, mainly the Japanese ones, he does not give up using authentically local Mexican ingredients, like chicatanas, escamoles and chapulines, in the case of insects. “I want my guests to have the clear idea that they are in a restaurant in Mexico, although with many influences from other countries”.
Other of his creations range from escamoles croquettes with epazote (a local herb) and wasabi emulsion to a dashi of fish and chapulines. “We make a mixture of spices with the grasshoppers and incorporate them into the dashi, resulting in a smoky and spicy broth”, he explains.
For Eduardo Morali, head chef of Pangea in Monterrey, in the North region of the country, Mexican cuisine is all around the world because Mexican chefs are much more aware of the importance of native ingredients that have been used in Mexican cuisine since pre- Hispanic times. And the insects were a significant culinary habit at that time - which deserves to be maintained to help shape the country’s food identity.
“It was uncommon to see insects as an ingredient that would fit in a tablecloth restaurant. But today, we have this desire to rescue our traditions, and the local cooks are increasingly looking for insects and techniques of our ancestors”, he points out. “A salt, a stew or a taco made with an insect in a restaurant is much more common than 10 years ago”, he adds.
In Pangea (No. 30 in the Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants list) he serves escamoles, for example, in two different forms: the first one in creamy rice with hazelnuts and the second in a dish with white asparagus. “We first analyze the texture and flavor of this ingredient, which is very succulent, creamy and delicate, so we seek to use them in a context where another ingredient or preparation does not overshadow them”, he explains.
Morali says it's the restaurants with the most up-to-date gastronomic proposals that need to lead the movement to bring back the Mexican entomophagy habits. "We are the ones who have the opportunity to use some 'out of the ordinary' ingredients and to show the world all the richness of our food traditions”, he concludes.
Tlayuda and avocado with escamoles
Edgard Nuñez, owner of acclaimed restaurants Comedor Jacinta and Sud 777 (No. 14 in the Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants list), both located in Mexico City, explains that Mexicans have always been eating insects, such as the famous chapulines (grasshoppers) and ants – especially in the regions of the country with a deeper connection with traditional pre-Hispanic food habits, such as Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Guerrero. But now, these bugs seem to have found a place in fancier dishes as well.
"On my part, I try to change the way we eat and combine insects in our food, joining new ingredients, looking for new combinations, such as the dish we have at Sud 777 with escamoles and bone marrow, for example. We must always look ahead but without losing the roots ", Nuñez states. "I study these traditions by traveling to the villages to see how local people use them traditionally, and to find new ways to look at them in the kitchen", he adds.
Escamoles are perhaps one of the most famous delicacies in the country: known as the "caviar of the desert", they are ant eggs found in high plains of Central Mexico. With a buttery and dairy taste and a ricotta mouthfeel, it has been used in many traditional recipes in Mexico, such as tacos, filled with the prized eggs fried in butter with onion and chili. In Sud 777, Nuñez also prepares a tlayuda (a kind of “pizza” from Oaxaca, made from a large, thin, and crunchy tortilla) covered with escamoles and guacamole. To drink, he serves a margarita with chapulines.